Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is a brave and powerful novel that gives voice to millions of people not born in America who have come to call it home. It focuses on a star-crossed love story between two teenagers, Mayor and Maribel, as it intersects with issues of family, culture, and identity, and the outcome is nothing short of remarkable: an immigrant narrative unlike any other you’ve read. To find out more about the novel that, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “can both make you think and break your heart,” read this interview with Henríquez about the book’s narration, the politics of immigration, and what she hopes readers take away from the novel. Enjoy!
Vintage Books: The story is written from two main points of view, with the voices of other characters woven into intermediary chapters. How did you decide which characters would be the main narrators? Why do we never hear directly from Maribel or Mayor’s mother, Celia?
Cristina Henríquez: The book has eleven different narrators, and the whole thing started for me with Mayor’s story. It started specifically with the line, “We heard they were from Mexico.” I just had that line for a long time in my brain, and I was walking around with it. And I eventually spooled that out into a short story that then eventually became a novel.
But from the beginning it was always just Mayor’s story to me, and then I started thinking about Maribel, this girl that he’s in love with. She has a brain injury, and she can’t exactly express herself on the page in the way that some of the other characters might be able to. I wanted to give her a voice, and I did that through her mother, Alma, who is the other main narrator. Alma narrates the story of the guilt that she feels—being complicit in some ways in what happened to Maribel. When I had those two narrators, they seemed like enough for a reader to handle. But I wanted also to have all of these interspersed voices of the different neighbors who lived in the same apartment building with them.
The spirit of the book really was to let everybody have a chance to tell their story, and to give everybody a platform and an opportunity to be heard. So I had all those different narrators, but I was a little bit structured and rigid about it when I was figuring it all out. I only wanted one narrator from each of the families, which is why Celia, for example, who’s Mayor’s mother, gets left out. Maribel gets left out because I just didn’t feel like she had the ability to tell her own story quite yet—although there’s a feeling by the end of the book that she’ll go on and is able to do that. She’s the central person to everything in the book. Everything that happens revolves around her, and I loved the idea that she was silent in the middle of all of it, and yet everybody is motivated by trying to help her and do things for her.
VB: The novel is imbued with political references—from mentions of Obama and his stance on immigration, to the state of the economy and how it’s affecting the community. Do you think of the immigrant story as a particularly political one? Or is it impossible to separate the two?
CH: A lot of people have said that the book is about immigration, which to me it never was. It was always a book about immigrants and those to me are two very different things. Immigration is a system and a set of policies. And immigrants are the people behind those policies and behind that system, and the human stories. That was always what was interesting to me from the beginning and what I tried to bring out in all of the characters. But I don’t want to sound disingenuous: if you’re writing about immigrants especially in this day and age, and about Latino immigrants in particular, it’s inescapably going to be political in some ways. Even having the last name that I have is political!
It was useful not to feel like I was writing anything that was didactic or heavy-handed. I really just wanted to tell these human stories that anyone could relate to—about people who lose their jobs. They mention Obama because I thought it would be fun to put Obama in there at the time the book was set.
The highest compliment that I’ve gotten about the book—and I have gotten it a number of times at this point—is when people say to me that after they finished the book, they thought of immigrants differently. They thought to themselves when they were driving down the street and saw a group of Latinos waiting at a bus stop to go do their work for the day: “They have a story.” That’s a really overwhelming and humbling thing, and it’s not something I set out to do. I just wanted to tell a good story, but it’s really humbling now to hear over and over again that it has changed people’s minds about something. In the current political climate that’s so frenzied over immigration, if you can do that on an individual level—get people to think a little bit differently—that’s a pretty big deal.
VB: What’s the one thing that you hope readers take away from the novel?
CH: The idea that it’s complex: that there’s no single story of an immigrant, that we all have these different stories, and that if we listen to each other and we change the stories that we tell about each other, we can change the way we think about the whole situation, and then it will change the world.
The epigraph to the book is “Let us all be from somewhere. Let us tell each other everything we can.” That was my guiding principle the whole time: that if we can tell each other these different kinds of stories and really give each other the space to listen to those stories, too, that it will change the whole conversation.
(This interview is based on a transcript of a video interview and has been lightly edited.)